Relatable role models and accessibility will be crucial

Sarah Chapman, Technical Leader and Advocate for Diversity in STEM, 3M, discusses the need to eliminate the STEM industry’s skills gap which is costing the UK economy billions each year.

  • 10 months ago Posted in

STEM education is an invaluable cornerstone of our society, as it is the foundation of all new scientific and technological insights. The STEM industry depends on young people choosing STEM subjects at school and university level, developing passions for those subjects which ultimately translate into invaluable careers. Worryingly, 3M’s 2022 state of science index (SOSI) report, found that 53% of respondents stated that they still believe that there is a gender gap in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and 44% of respondents stated that they believe there is a racial/ethnic gap.

Barriers to STEM education The Institute of Engineering and Technology estimated the shortfall of STEM workers to be over 173,000, a shortage of skills that costs businesses in the UK £1.5 billion each year. Despite this deficit of workers and the clear need to attract people into the industry, women remain underrepresented in STEM. According to the WISE Campaign women make up just 26.6% of the core-STEM workforce. However, these percentages vary according to sector. For example, women IT professionals currently account for 21% of the technology workforce, while female engineers account for only 12.5%. The number of ideas and new ways of thinking that we are currently missing out on is vast.

Much of the problem is caused by the public’s perception of science and the barriers to career opportunities in the industry. 3M’s state of science index (SOSI) report found that more than 1 in 3 not currently in a STEM field (37%), have considered pursuing STEM (but have chosen another career due to issues with affordability, access to STEM classes, social bias and lack of role models that they can identify with. With most advanced economies in the world struggling with significant tech skills shortages, reducing the barriers to STEM will be critical for closing the skills gap.

The importance of relatable role models

As the findings above have demonstrated, one of the major barriers to establishing a diverse workforce in the STEM industry is the existence of occupational stereotypes. These perceptions around the typical people that work in certain industries are disruptive and demotivating and thus greatly limit the talent pool. Therefore increasing the diversity of role models in science and technology can significantly boost inclusion in these industries. For example, recent research from Microsoft showed that girls’ interest in STEM careers almost doubled when they had visible role models to aspire to. There is a significant lack of visible, relatable role models within the industry. 3M’s state of science index (SOSI) report revealed that 19% of respondents didn’t pursue a career in STEM as they didn’t know anyone that looked like them in the industry. Having diverse people involved in scientific research draws upon different lenses, experiences, questions, passions and fundamentally achieves better results.

It is therefore imperative that organisations focus on how they can inspire young people’s interest in science and ensure that the STEM workforce is as diverse as the society it serves. British Science Week, the annual celebration of science hosted by the British Science Association, prompted a ground-breaking “Smashing Stereotypes” campaign in the year 2020 profiling scientists and engineers from

3M and other partner organisations to show the diversity of the STEM workforce and help banish the ‘lone-working, white, male genius stereotype.’

We need more diverse role models, and we need to share their stories more widely.

Diversity drives innovation, which has benefits for business, the economy and society as a whole. With businesses, and the wider world, facing constant, evolving and increasingly complex challenges, there is an ongoing need for innovation. These creative ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, regardless of race, age, gender identity, sexuality, or background. By breaking stereotypes in the industry and placing relatable role models in front of children and young people, we can encourage more people from more diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in STEM and can begin to tackle the skills shortage that is challenging progress in our society.

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